But it is the search for a recipe for irresistible chocolates that sends Inspector Bobby Owen and his wife Olive to a small village not far from the manufacturing town of Midwych. Olive has been asked by her friend Mrs. Weston to seek out a woman named Mary Floyd who is known to make these delectable treats so they can sell them at an upcoming church fair. When Owen and his wife track down Miss Floyd they find her in a house in an overgrown forest and living with an invalid mother, an abusive stepfather, and a strange little girl who can communicate with animals and spends more time flitting through the maze of twisting trees of the forest than she does in her home. It's all beginning to sound like something from the Brothers Grimm, isn't it?
Hoping that they can get the recipe for the secret ingredient in the chocolates, a flavor enhancing essence whipped up by the hermit, Owen and Olive head into the woods to find the hermit's hut. When they arrive the place is in a shambles -- furniture thrown about, old books ripped open, and a bloodstain on the floor. Owen notices that although there is freshly chopped firewood outside the axe used to chop that wood is nowhere to be found. And neither is Peter the Hermit. Then a local man named Richard Rawdon, nephew to Sir Andrew Rawdon who owns the forest and land on which the hut is located, disturbs the Owens in their investigation. The situation is further complicated by Rawdon's reluctance to admit why he was visiting the hut at that precise time.
I'm glad I chose this book by the prolific Punshon to introduce me to his work. He's quite a hit and miss writer which is to be expected from someone who churned out over fifty detective novels as well as historical fiction, adventure and mainstream novels. This one is a definite hit. Most of his mystery novels feature Bobby Owen as detective, but he also wrote about the sleuthing duo of Carter and Bell who appear in five books. Punshon is one of those Golden Age writers who slipped through the cracks. None of his books are currently in print. If you come across an old used copy of Diabolic Candelabra I suggest you buy it then and there. It's one of those refreshing surprises that are waiting to be discovered among the hundreds of overlooked vintage detective novels. A further recommendation comes in this glowing endorsement emblazoned on the dust jackets of several of the Victor Gollancz editions of Punshon's mysteries:
"What is distinction? The few who achieve it step - plot or no plot - unquestioned into the first rank. We recognized it in Sherlock Holmes, and in Trent's Last Case, in The Mystery of the Villa Rose, in the Father Brown stories and in the works of Mr. E. R. Punshon we salute it every time." -- Dorothy L. Sayers